The Common Good

To Vote or Not to Vote

Some folks I've talked to are not going to vote in the 2008 elections. Some are disillusioned. Some don't like either candidate enough to vote. For some, not voting is an act of protest against the whole system, which they believe is hopelessly corrupt. Some believe that their citizenship in God's kingdom means they shouldn't become involved in "earthly" citizenship.

While I respect my friends who aren't going to vote -- especially those who have prayerfully thought the decision through from multiple vantage points -- I will vote in this election for several reasons.

1. True, there are plenty of reasons to be disillusioned with U.S. politics (corptocracy and plutocracy being major ones). But in my travels in other countries it has become clear to me that even though our system has a lot of problems (and that was a gentle understatement), many other nations are far more corrupt, far less transparent, etc. If we in the U.S. don't try to make our system work, we're setting a pretty poor example. Besides, in every other area of my life -- church, family, business, etc. -- I don't let disappointment or disillusionment or setbacks make me withdraw into inaction. Rather, I become more committed to make things work.

2. I don't expect any candidate to be perfect. In fact, my theological beliefs tell me that I will always be choosing between the lesser of two evils -- or more positively put, the better of two less-than-perfects. The fact that candidates are willing to endure the hard work, the media scrutiny, the pressure, the responsibility -- of both the election and the office -- can be seen as a sign of something good. After all, if all a candidate cared about was personal peace, personal comfort, or personal wealth, there are a lot better ways to get ahead. So rather than say, "I don't think either candidate is good enough for my vote," I'm more prone to say, "Thank God people are willing to run at all, and thank God we have two candidates as good as the ones we have." We could be choosing between Mugabe and Mugabe.

3. I believe there is much to protest in our current system. But noninvolvement, it seems to me, generally empowers those who are in control. So non-voting becomes a kind of passive vote for the people in power.

4. I believe that a commitment to Christian discipleship should make me a better neighbor, employee, spouse, child, or parent, too. Similarly, I believe that "citizenship in God's kingdom" should make me the best kind of citizen possible, not the worst. Of course, because of my commitment to God's kingdom, I have a broader range of concerns than I would without that commitment. (More on this in the next post.) But I believe that those concerns would in the big scheme of things make me an even more valuable citizen. My civic responsibility would certainly not end with voting, but I can't see why it would stop short of voting either.

One final thought. For those of us who do vote, it is a mistake to think that electing the better of two candidates necessarily guarantees things will get better. (Electing the worst of two candidates, however, can definitely make things worse!) I've lived in the D.C. area most of my life, and it's clear to me from where I live that there are powerful forces that resist the leadership of every new president -- political and economic lobbies, bureaucratic and institutional inertia, plus the frightening ever-present momentum of the military-industrial complex. I agree 100 percent with my friend Jim Wallis who says that what changes society is not just elections, but the wise and ongoing pressure of social movements on elected officials. Politicians are always checking the wind, Jim says -- and our job, through social movements, is to change the wind. And I also agree 100 percent with my friends Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, who remind us as followers of Jesus that we don't elect our ultimate commander-in-chief. Rather, we discover that he has elected us to join him in his mission. In that light, I believe our vote must ultimately seek to express our fidelity to his good news -- which is (according to Luke) good news for all people, and especially good news for the poor.

Brian McLaren is an author and speaker and serves as Sojourners' board chair. You can learn about his books, music, and other resources at brianmclaren.net.

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